There's a vicious dogfight across the placid faces of countesses and noblemen. The dogs are in a circle; they tear each other apart in an endless loop. The aristocrats, partially buried under bared teeth and mangy bodies, respond not at all, wearing only the slightest expressions of genteel virtues: bemusement, contemplation, pride, bashfulness.

On one level, violence is being done to art, to images of value and to a certain studied artiness and artifice. The faces are made painstakingly in pencil and paint, scribbled over with beasts made in blue ballpoint pen and irascible drips and smears of paint. Or maybe these scenes look like a unified, surrealistic allegory about the punishing, rising nightmare of the ruling class.

Actually, the two planes in Dawn Cerny's paintings do not cohere at all, and this is where the shock lies. It is impossible to see them together. They seek the sort of violence enacted by Dadaist collage. But their parts don't crash into each other to form a monstrous new entity that projects a different kind of future. They are stuck in a perpetual stall both compelling and frustrating. Cerny has not quite got to where she is going, but she is going somewhere far. The journey—with only pen, pencil, and paint—leads through three centuries of Western civilization, a history of consumer culture, and ideas about nature, progress, violence, and art.

To make this show at Gallery 4Culture, Cerny, a Seattle artist on the verge of her career, studied catalogs for past art auctions at Sotheby's. She replicated the style of pre–Industrial Age portraiture, when royals and landed gentry posed as earthly gods and goddesses with their angelic horses and dogs. Cerny may have lifted all of these faces directly, I'm not sure—I swear I see a Botticelli maiden here, her coyly bowed head mirroring the position of the lifeless ballpoint-pen deer head splayed on her chest—and it doesn't matter, really. What Cerny borrowed is a whole obsolete social code as fixed as the stereotype about violence being primal and outside culture (I love the way one of the dogs emerges from a pipe in the gallery's ceiling, as if he were always there, waiting to come out of the sewer lines).

The role of Sotheby's in all of this is worth considering. These are art images already bought, "divest(ed) of their commodity character" by collectors, as Walter Benjamin wrote in The Arcades Project: "The collector delights in evoking a world that is not just distant and long gone but also better—a world in which, to be sure, human beings are no better provided with what they need than in the real world, but in which things are freed from the drudgery of being useful." In other words, shopping changes everything. As in the Parisian arcades that inspired not only Benjamin but modern malls, Cerny has set her portrait heads in a lineup, as if they are shoes or fruit for sale. In this scenario, the dogs do not demean the art; they restore something vigorous, if only to its surface (like the biting title #1 Century in the USA in another piece, appended to the image of a dead rabbit painted in the style of a Flemish still-life and marked "17th Century").

Schönbrunn (A Failed Attempt at Something Grand) is Cerny's title for the show. It refers to a Viennese palace built for the Hapsburg dynasty at the turn of the 18th century that is now a popular tourist attraction. Travel pamphlets describe its origin in terms of its name, from "schöner brunnen" or "beautiful fountain," according to a natural spring Holy Roman Emperor Matthias is said to have discovered in a legendary hunting expedition on the site in 1612.

This vision of a naturally occurring heaven is at odds with the site's fair share of disappointment, destruction, and perseverance toward a human-made utopia. At one point, the whole site was devastated by a Turkish siege. Later, hoped-for designs were scaled back because of a costly war. This compromised idea of a home for the divinely appointed is where Maria Antonia spent her sheltered childhood before becoming Marie Antoinette, doomed queen of France. In Cerny's art, revolution is ill, infected with humor and doubt, but still sneering. It Cost a Fortune to Restore is a drawing of five upholstered chairs like nobles themselves ganged up in front of a curvaceous loveseat to protect it (from the ogling viewer? from the storming peasants?), next to the inscription "Louis XVIXXIIIVIVIIIXVI."

War, with its blend of progressive and ancient technologies and instincts, might be the best metaphor for this show. The hopeful early 20th-century philosopher Ernst Bloch described "non-synchronicity" as a modern condition marked by intrusions of the past in the present that represent unrealized utopic potential filtering forward through history. Cerny's dogs and classics are not fighting toward destruction. They want to claw and shimmy their way forward together.